‘We must be prepared to suffer’ – Conte’s Chelsea bracing for tought Barca test

Antonio Conte hailed Lionel Messi as the best player in the world but warned his Chelsea players not to become fixated with Barcelona’s talisman in Tuesday’s imposing Champions League clash at Stamford Bridge.

Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi has an unusually poor record against Chelsea, failing to score in eight previous encounters with the reigning Premier League champions in Europe’s top competition.

But Conte is not placing too much stock in the prospect of that record continuing and observed La Liga’s leaders can hurt opponents from all angles.

Asked whether Chelsea would grant Messi any special attention, Conte replied: “This is a good question. We are talking about the best player in the world.

“Messi has the capacity to solve the situation and create a chance when you are not seeing the chance to score. This means that, with this player, we are talking about a fantastic player.

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“We have to pay great attention, but not only to Messi. [Luis] Suarez is a fantastic striker. The rest of the team are very dangerous, so we have to work as a team to try and stop Barcelona — Messi, Suarez, [Andres] Iniesta, the whole team of Barcelona.

“We have to work very hard. We have to know that, during the game, we must be prepared to suffer. But, at the same time, we must have the idea to go and score at any moment.”

As Italy boss at Euro 2016, Conte put forward a tactical masterclass as his unfancied side deservedly beat a Spain team featuring the likes of Iniesta and Gerard Pique 2-0 in the round of 16.

He conceded there were some parallels between that encounter and the two-legged battle about to unfold.

“I think we start this game as underdogs, for sure. Barcelona — on paper — are favourites to go into the next round,” he said.

“But, for this reason, I think we must be excited to take on this challenge. These two games will be very important to understand what is our level in this competition.

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“We’ve worked and prepared well. It won’t be easy. We are playing against Barcelona.”

Conte added: “When you have to play this type of game, you have to prepare everything. You have to prepare big things, but the smaller details too. They can move a result a lot of the time.

“We have an idea. We have a plan in our heads. I think that, in this specific moment, it’s very important to pick the players who are at the top of their form and then try and do our best to win the game.”


‘I try and do my best’ – Hazard aspiring to reach Messi’s level in Champions League clash

Eden Hazard knows he must shine in matches like Chelsea’s Champions League last-16 showdown with Barcelona on Tuesday if he wants to be considered in the same bracket as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Hazard starred in Chelsea’s 2014-15 and 2016-17 title-winning campaigns in the Premier League, but there is a lingering sense that Europe’s top competition is yet to see the best of the Belgium playmaker.

Speaking at a news conference ahead of Barcelona’s visit to Stamford Bridge, Hazard reminded reporters of his fine displays in the group stage against Atletico Madrid this season, but knows where he stands in the overall pecking order.

“I played again Messi once in the World Cup against Argentina and we lost the game. I hope tomorrow is going to be different,” said the 27-year-old, recalling Belgium’s disappointment at Brazil 2014.

“It’s good to be compared with the greatest ever, Messi or Ronaldo, but I’m completely different.

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“We play in a different league. I try to do my job and try to reach their level, because they are the best in the world. Every season I try and do my best.

“When we play these kind of games, we need to perform. If you want to be one of the best, you have to play well in the big games.

“Every game I try and play my best football. Every week in the Premier League. Last year we didn’t play Champions League, but this year we are back and I played a few good games — Atletico Madrid away, Roma, here against Madrid.

“You want to shine when you play the best in the world. If I want to reach that level, I need to do a great game tomorrow.”

Not for the first time, recent transfer speculation has linked Hazard with a move to Barcelona’s sworn rivals Real Madrid at the end of this season.

The player himself, however, insists he is happy at Chelsea.

“First, I see the game tomorrow. We are going to face Barca,” he replied when asked about Los Blancos.

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“I have played for Chelsea for now six years. I’m just happy here. Like you say, I have two years left on my contract.

“I’m happy here, my family is happy here. Now I’m just focused on the game [and until] the end of the season.

“I don’t think much about the future because you never know what happens in the future, but I’m just happy here.”


‘It’s a red card’ – Guardiola accepts Delph sending off after Man City’s FA Cup exit

Pep Guardiola had no complaints over Fabian Delph’s red card after Manchester City crashed out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic.

Will Grigg’s 79th-minute goal gave Paul Cook’s League One side a remarkable upset triumph, ending City’s hopes of an unprecedented quadruple in the process.

Guardiola was involved in a heated exchange with Cook as tempers also boiled over on the field following Delph’s rash lunge on Latics midfielder Max Power during first-half stoppage time.

The City boss, who has urged officials to protect players from dangerous tackles after seeing his men on the receiving end over recent weeks, described the challenge that will rule Delph out of Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Arsenal as “unnecessary”.

Asked for his thoughts on the incident at a post-match news conference, Guardiola replied: “Red card. It’s a red card, yeah.

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“For me it’s an unnecessary action and the referee decides when he decides. It can be a red card. We have to learn about that.”

Guardiola was keen to dismiss any notion of lingering animosity from the touchline row, which he claimed stemmed from telling Cook to remain in his technical area.

“Nothing, just [saying] ‘stay in his position’. That’s all,” said the Catalan, who quickly tired of questions on the subject.

“Guys, if you want to ask me about football, ask me about football. Nothing happened in the tunnel, nothing happened with my colleague. Nothing.

“It was just ‘please stay in your position’. That’s all.”

Claudio Bravo was brought in for his now customary appearance in goal for City’s domestic cup ties, while Nicolas Otamendi and Raheem Sterling were rested.

It was otherwise a very strong City side that Wigan overcame, but Guardiola had no complaints over his team’s efforts.

“I judge my team for the intentions, not for the results,” he added. “The intentions during the season, even today, were good.

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“We tried, 10 against 11, we created chances. Their keeper was good, we could not finish. Mentally it is hard fighting in four competitions and we did it.

“The intentions were good and, after that, the result speaks for itself. 1-0 — congratulations to Wigan. Normally when I lose, my first words are always for the winner.

“It [defeat] happened against Liverpool, it happened today, it will happen again. Congratulations to Wigan, all the best for the future.”


Man City seek talks with Wigan over pitch invasion & Aguero altercation

Manchester City officials will seek talks with their Wigan counterparts in the coming days to discuss security arrangements at the DW Stadium and establish how a pitch invasion, which led to Sergio Aguero being confronted by fans, was allowed to happen.

Wigan knocked City out of the FA Cup in remarkable circumstances on Monday evening, with Will Grigg’s goal grounding Pep Guardiola’s high-flying side after they had been reduced to 10 men just before half-time.

Fabian Delph’s red card sparked heated scenes between Guardiola and Wigan boss Paul Cook on the touchline and in the tunnel at half-time, while Aguero also rowed with Cook as players from both sides clashed on the pitch.

That stoked the atmosphere for the second half and Grigg’s goal 79th-minute goal ensured a dramatic and emotional finale.

The home side managed to ride out City’s late surges forward and referee Anthony Taylor’s final whistle acted as the starting pistol for hundreds of fans who were determined to celebrate their famous victory on the pitch.

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Yet a small number of those supporters approached Aguero and jostled with the Argentine striker, who reacted and had to be pulled away.

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Neither manager was willing to comment on the incident after the game, but City sources have told Goal that the club will make their displeasure known to Wigan.

They believe that measures should have been in place to prevent supporters from entering the pitch, which would have averted any issues regarding supporters confronting players.

City recently wrote a letter to referees’ chief Mike Riley about the standard of officiating in their matches, and proposed rule changes which would allow incidents seen by the referee to be subjected to retroactive action, which could mean yellow cards being upgraded to red.


Amazon get their money’s worth as City’s quadruple hopes dramatically die

Given Manchester City are going into the entertainment business with their Amazon documentary series, you could easily imagine the opening scenes of the episode simply known as “Wigan”.

Claudio Bravo, up for a corner, wins a header in the box. Bernardo Silva, one of the most intricate players in the most intricate team, hoists the ball into the area. Sergio Aguero clashes with fans on the pitch. Fade to black. The caption reads: “90 minutes earlier.”

Nobody would switch off at that point.

City rocked up in Wigan for what appeared to be a formality. With the FA Cup quarter-final draw already made, the attention of some supporters had already turned towards a home tie with Southampton next month, if not another trip to Wembley for an April semi-final.

Yes, Wigan had pulled off one of the most famous FA Cup upsets of all time to beat City in the 2013 final, but nobody expected them to do it again.

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City, back in 2013, were in open revolt.  The squad that had won the title 12 months previously had, by all accounts, decided they wanted Roberto Mancini out, and their performance on the day suggested that that was more important than winning the cup. The fans chanted “you can stick your Pellegrini up your arse”, after news filtered through that the Chilean would be replacing Mancini whatever happened.

Hardly the ideal circumstances for a cup final, even if the opposition had just been relegated.

Yet you could hardly have imagined a happier camp than the City side that arrived at the DW Stadium on Monday. Up until Fabian Delph’s red card, anyway.

City were not at their best in the first half but they probed and created enough openings to suggest another victory was in the post. Certainly, when Christian Walton produced a super save to deny Sergio Aguero just before half-time, it seemed as if City were getting there.

But all went wrong from the resulting corner. Delph, around 30 yards out and the closest outfield player to City’s goal, lunged in to make sure Max Power couldn’t nip around him and break. The left-back was overzealous, however, and while his robust challenge was not the kind of malicious foul which City have complained about recently, it had all the ingredients for a red card: powerful, clumsy, both feet, studs up.

Referee Anthony Taylor pulled the yellow card out and even went to write Delph’s name on it, but soon switched to a red. Cue pandemonium. Pep Guardiola and his bench went ballistic. Aguero rowed with Wigan boss Paul Cook, having to be dragged away by Guardiola and his team-mates.

Pep Guardiola Paul Cook Manchester City Wigan Athletic

Fabian Delph Manchester City

The half-time whistle did nothing to alleviate the situation: BBC cameras captured footage of Guardiola and Cook arguing in the tunnel. They also appeared to show the Catalan racing towards the officials as they made their way off the pitch, but the pictures were prematurely cut. Hopefully Amazon caught the full scene.

Despite the red card, the second half took the same shape as the first, though Kyle Walker came on for Leroy Sane, who had disappointed. The biggest problem for City, far from any concerns about Wigan looking to exploit their numerical advantage, was that they did not have much of an outlet on the left when they looked to break.

Still, it seemed like one through ball and one cool finish would do it. When Kevin De Bruyne came on it felt as if the breakthrough was coming. With Aguero’s son in the crowd celebrating his birthday, you wouldn’t have been surprised if Aguero senior bagged the winner.

Walker looked to take responsibility at right-back in the way that Danilo rarely does, bursting forward and trying to make things happen. But the England man, faster than the rest of his defensive colleagues by quite a distance, was the man to slip up. He misjudged, letting the ball and Will Grigg run in behind him, and even he could not catch up. Grigg, the subject of the catchiest football chant in history, fired past Bravo.

City still had 11 minutes to earn a replay, or better, but could not pick their way through. For every presentable shooting opportunity they created there were two Wigan players in the way to block it. De Bruyne worked his way to the byline but could not pick out a team-mate, and there were plenty of them waiting.

Never more so than when City won two late corners. Bravo has played less like a goalkeeper than an outfielder hastily handed gloves so far in his time in England, but you would not have him down as much of a presence in the air. Still, there he was, up for a corner, winning a header as City tried everything.

Wigan, roared on by a desperate and delighted crowd, did everything to get the ball as far from their goal as possible. Bernardo scampered after it, but the time for picking precise targets was long gone. He looked up and launched it to the back post. Guardiola’s principles, for those final moments, were out of the window.

That said, it’s a good job City have Guardiola as their manager, and not the director of next summer’s Amazon Prime series.  

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Speaking after the match, going against all available evidence, he accepted Delph deserved to be sent off: “For me it’s an unnecessary action and the referee decided what he decided. I’m not here to judge, it can be a red card.”

He would not be drawn on the rest, either. “Guys, if you want to ask about football, ask about football, nothing happened in the tunnel.”

This was, though, an explosive night of both football and the controversial stuff that often goes with it. City’s quadruple hopes are over, but they go to Wembley on Sunday for the next episode.